1. Read Through the Recipe
This sounds obvious, but cakes in particular have certain requirements, such as the temperature of ingredients, that cannot be altered. You don't want to realize too late that the butter you just mixed with sugar was supposed to be softened.
2. Assemble Ingredients and Ensure Their Correct Temperature
Get all of your ingredients and equipment out on the counter before you begin and make sure they're at the proper temperature. This is especially important for butter and eggs: Soft butter makes for a smooth batter and a lofty cake, and room-temperature eggs keep the batter's temperature consistent.
To soften butter, leave it out for several hours; it should offer no resistance when you press on it. Or, you can hurry the process using a microwave: Cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes, arrange them in a single layer on a microwave-safe plate, then microwave on high for 3 seconds at a time, testing in between, until the butter is softened but not melted.
3. Preheat the Oven
Before preparing the batter, your oven should be at the correct temperature. A batter will not react properly to heat if it sits at room temperature for 10 minutes waiting for the oven to heat. Nor will it rise properly if the oven continues to warm up after the pan has been placed in it. Avoid burning your cake by setting a rack in the middle of the oven for cake layers or in the lower third for a tube cake so that the top of the pan is not too close to the top of the oven.
4. Prepare Your EquipmentTo ensure that your finished cake has the right shape, it's important to make sure that it will come out of the pan in one piece. The most common way to do this is to coat the pan with butter, but the specifics may vary depending on the type of cake. For cake layers in general, you coat the inside of the pan with very soft but not melted butter using a brush. Follow that with a disk of parchment paper cut to the size of the inside of the pan. For a butter cake baked in a Bundt pan, coat with soft butter, and then coat the buttered surface with fine, dry bread crumbs, tapping the inverted pan to dislodge any excess. Follow with a quick coat of vegetable cooking spray for a guarantee that the cake won't stick. Line a rectangular or square pan with foil by molding the foil first on the back of the pan, then pressing it into the pan. Butter the foil. This makes it easy to lift a cake that you don't want to invert, such as a crumb cake, right out of the pan.
5. Prepare the Batter
Instructions will vary depending on the type of cake: For butter cakes, the ingredients will typically be combined using the creaming method; for sponge cakes the eggs will generally be beaten, then folded in. For the proper texture, be sure to follow the instructions closely, and then pour the batter into the pan or pans and bake.
See our videos on preparing various kinds of cake batter:
6. Test for DonenessTo test a cake, plunge a thin knife or cake tester into the center (or halfway between the side and the tube if using a tube pan). When a cake is finished, you will find a few crumbs sticking to the knife or tester when you withdraw it. If the cake is not ready yet, there will be wet batter on the knife or tester.
7. Cool the CakeMost cakes are cooled on a metal rack for even air circulation. A recipe will indicate whether the cake should be cooled in the pan or unmolded immediately. Follow instructions carefully—leaving certain types of cakes in the pan for too long may cause them to stick. Angel food cakes and chiffon cakes need to cool suspended upside down in their tube pans or they will deflate and look squashed and unappealing when you cut them. Invert the pan over several inverted ramekins so that the edges of the pan are supported by them. It is best to figure out the system for doing this before you begin baking the cake by testing the empty pan over the ramekins to make sure your system will be stable.
8. Unmold the CakeWhen you are ready, gently run a sharp, thin knife between the edge of the pan and the cake. Then invert a rack or platter (as indicated in the recipe) over the top of the pan. Turn the pan over and lift it off the cake. You may be asked to finish cooling the cake upside down or instructed to turn it right side up again. Be sure to follow instructions, as each type of cake cools best in a different way
9. "Finish" the Cake
As described in the section on fillings, frostings, and glazes, options for finishing a cake are numerous. Some varieties, such as pound cakes and crumb cakes, are finished already when they come out of the oven and don't need any embellishment at all. For others, a simple dusting of powdered sugar or quick brush with a glaze may be all that's required. And some cakes, such as European-style layer cakes, can be filled with multiple fillings, frosted with a different frosting or glaze, and then adorned with elaborate decorations, such as piped buttercream or marzipan crafted into roses and leaves.
See our videos on ways to finish a butter layer cake: